By Sean Moseley, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
As we stressed in last month’s newsletter, good communication is essential for any engineering project. In this edition, which is also based on my six months at Ventures observing client/engineer interaction, we’ll show how good meeting notes – agendas and minutes – can aid the flow of communication between everyone involved: the client, the project manager and the project team. Agendas and minutes are not just paperwork; they are critical to a successful project.
A Traditional Approach
An agenda is a document provided in advance to everyone attending a project meeting that lists the topics to be discussed. Minutes are written after the meeting is over, based on handwritten or digital notes taken by a designated person attending the meeting. The goal of the note taker is to record the main points of discussion, decisions made, and any directions from the client. Minutes typically also list those attending the meeting, summarize progress made on the project, and provide directions for future work.
The primary advantage of this traditional approach is familiarity; nearly everyone has some experience with this way of doing things. Another significant benefit of writing an agenda is that it gives the project manager and team the opportunity to focus on the project and formulate the goals of the meeting (including what they’d like to tell the client), in advance of the meeting. An advantage for the client is that receiving an agenda gives them a chance to anticipate the discussion in the meeting and prepare questions in advance. This process also creates a running record of a project that can be usefully referenced in the future.
The main challenge of this approach is recording enough detail to make the meeting minutes useful. Writing the minutes even just a day or two after the meeting may be too late because meeting notes that seemed clear when taken may appear opaque later, when context and details are lost. Taking notes during the meeting is difficult for the person running the meeting, but a designated note taker may not have enough experience to recognize the important elements of the discussion. Effective project managers balance these tradeoffs.
As with all client communication, different clients require different approaches. Some clients will require only a high-level report of progress during a meeting, others will need far more detail. For the latter kind, it may be best to include a list of questions or prompts in the agenda to spur client feedback. Finally, live editing of meeting minutes on a shared document can keep everyone involved in the process and ensure the minutes reflect everyone’s memory of the meeting.
Next month, I’ll share with you my takeaways on running effective group calls and virtual meetings.